I like Google+, I do, but I’m not liking their recent purge of pseudonymous folk at all. It’s not right that people like Bug Girl and DrugMonkey face the choice between revealing their real names or getting banned. And we’re not talking just having their profiles deactivated, no, it’s worse than that: they were exiled completely from Google+, not allowed to even follow along in silence, all for the terrible crime of not writing under their “real” name. Fortunately, it seems they’re now allowed to view, but nothing else.
Google+ is going to have to deal with a few facts or shrink dramatically.
A ‘nym is not an unknown. Names are easy to fake. Reputations are not. Over the months and years, pseudonymous folk build up a reputation, and that reputation follows the ‘nym. So let’s not pretend that a pseudonym is the same as anonymous. Some people still get confused about that – apparently, Google+ is, too, and it’s pathetic at this late stage in the game. Allowing people to use their pseudonyms will not throw open the gates to barbarians and trolls. Disallowing ‘nyms won’t prevent people from being assclowns. What Google is doing is about as sensible as banning all Muslims from airports because the vast majority of people who hijack planes are Muslim. You harm a lot of very good people for very little gain. There are better ways of guarding against undesired behaviors. Such as, banning the people who actually engage in those behaviors, regardless of whether they use their real names or not.
Google seems to have this idea that people only use a ‘nym because they’re up to no good. That’s ridiculous. There are plenty of excellent reasons why someone wouldn’t want to go by their real name. I chose a pseudonym a long time ago (ye gods, nearly twenty years, how time flies), not because I wanted to hide my real self but because my legal name isn’t one I want on the cover of my books. Grow up with a last name associated with a very kitschy retailer, deal with the endless no-longer-funny jokes, and on top of that have a character filch your first name, and before long, you’re having nightmares about doing very Not Nice things to fans who unwitting tell you the Not Funny Joke for the billionth-and-eleventy-first time. In the interests of public relations, I have to be a ‘nym.
But there are deeper reasons. Much, much deeper.
I do not want my identity stolen. I do not want to be stalked. I do not want current or future employers deciding my liberal tendencies or my atheism or whatever else makes me suddenly unemployable, despite an exemplary track record. I do not want my rapist able to locate me simply by searching my name. Those, it seems, are reasons enough not to operate online under my legal name. Besides, my legal name weirds me out, now. I hear it and it sounds wrong. I’m Dana Hunter, online and off (except at the office). That’s me. Not this stranger on my driver’s license.
There are ‘nyms out there who have even better reasons. ‘Nyms who risk death by being who they are, and would potentially be tracked down and killed if they went by their real names – Muslims who deconvert, for instance, or women escaping abusive former spouses. There are ‘nyms who would be ostracized were certain things about them known: that they’re LGBTQ, or atheists. There are ‘nyms who would lose their jobs for saying what they do: whistleblowers, or simply people who have a lot to share but whose companies don’t want them to discuss anything even tangentially related to their employment in public. All of these ‘nyms have something of interest to say, something of value to contribute, and the intertoobz would be a far poorer place were they silenced. Google+ certainly will be a sanitized wasteland if they’re all exiled from it.
And how does it possibly make sense to force ‘nyms to use their real names, even if they’re able? We don’t know who the fuck John B. Smith is. We don’t care. We know a ‘nym, and a ‘nym is who we’re looking for when we go to add that beloved person to our circles. And how do you, Google, know that John B. Smith is the name behind the ‘nym? Because it’s a “real” name, not something even the most drug-addled hippie parent would have named a child? How do you know that real-sounding name wasn’t just cobbled together from a few random entries in a phone book? We don’t present proof of identity when we sign up. Google doesn’t have Dana Hunter’s driver’s license or birth certificate on file. (Should they ever ask, though, I can point them to a rather large number of people in both my online and offline worlds who’d know who Dana Hunter is and could easily pick me out of a crowd. Even my parents know me by my ‘nym.)
The solution to whatever it is Google’s hoping to prevent by banning ‘nyms – whether it’s sock puppetry or trolling or general asshattery – isn’t the nuclear option of banning everybody with an implausible name (including Chinese ones). Just witness the security procedures that put innocent kiddies on no-fly lists only to let a terrorist named Richard Reid on board, no questions asked despite the bomb in his shoe, to see how effective such tactics are. Targeted tools that enforce consequences for actual bad behavior make better sense, don’t ensnare the innocent quite so often, and ensure actual results. That’s much more useful to a community.
Google+ is new, and there are bound to be growing pains. The real test is to see how they respond to their mistakes. If they’re smart, they’ll fix their policy and let the poor exiled ‘nyms back in with a swift apology.
If not, my profile may not be long for Google+, whether they cotton to the fact I’m a ‘nym or not. I don’t think I’d want to be part of an environment that’s unremittingly hostile to my Bug Girl and DrugMonkey friends.